No girls

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No girls

Vanessa Baird writes about the problems – personal and global - of prenatal sex selection.


Parents choose boys, not girls, in China and India. This has changed the global average sex ratio at birth to a biologically impossible level. (Pawan Kumar/Reuters)

In the documentary film ‘It’s a Girl’, there is a terrible moment.

A woman smiles nervously as she describes how she killed her eight new-born baby daughters.

Then she puts her hand to her neck, to show how she strangled them – and it looks as if she is almost strangling herself. In a way, she was.

Other women in the film, in her community in rural Tamil Nadu say they did the same thing to give their husbands a son.

This terrible custom is not common in India today, sociologists say. Only in some isolated communities.

But many more baby girls die more slowly – because people don’t look after them. This is shocking: an Indian girl aged between one and five is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. It’s the worst gender difference for under-fives in the world.

But another form of sex discrimination is far more common today than letting girls die – making sure that girls are not born.

Changing the world

In the 1980s it became possible to see the sex of the baby before it was born. Parents in China and India, the countries with the highest populations, did this. If they did not like what they saw, they could abort (get rid of the foetus) and try again.

The result of their choices: more boys. Many, many more boys. In China, by 2020, there could be 30-40 million more boys under 19 than girls. That’s the same number as all the boys in the US.

And there are also a lot less girls. The latest global UN estimates are that 117 million females are missing. So 117 million women and girls would be alive now - if sex selection before birth, neglect and infanticide after birth didn’t exist. Imagine the whole female populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Spain and France – all gone.

Normally, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Boys are biologically weaker, so nature regulates this by making sure more are born. This ratio is quite consistent; a ratio of over 107 starts to look strange. But because of all the change, 107 is now the world average – and this is impossible in biological terms.

China is the worst, they have about 118 boys born to every 100 girls; India has a national average of about 111, (but in some northwest states the difference is more extreme).

And it’s not only an Asian problem. Several European countries, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Albania, have many more male births than is natural, because of sex selection. Azerbaijan, has about 116 boys to every 100 girls - the second-worst sex ratio at birth in the world. And it is changing in Western Europe and North America, too.


This was not sudden; there were warnings. In 1990, economist Amartya Sen wrote that millions of women were ‘missing’. He said it was because of female infanticide and neglect. Later, analysts found out how important prenatal sex-selection was too.

There were warnings during the next decade, but not much was done. Now academics are calculating, and studying, the future impact of so many extra males – on health, crime, relationships, family life, social harmony, global security.

Some economists said that the status of women would improve because there were not so many of them. But the opposite seems to be happening. Females are seen more as a “thing” that you can buy and sell.

Trafficking (usually forced) of girls and women into China is now a multibillion dollar business, and there is more demand for it. Child marriage is still common in India, and is now starting in China, too. There are stories of parents who kidnap girls to keep as partners for their sons in the future.


This young woman has been trafficked (sold) to Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with not enough girls and women. She has often been raped by her husband's brothers, who cannot find wives. (Nita Bhalla/Reuters)

There is lot of sexual violence in Asia – especially gang rapes in India. The media says this could be because of not enough females. It is easier to see the violence (physical and emotional) that women in India can suffer from their husband’s parents if they refuse to take a sex test or abort a female foetus (a baby before it is born).

Mitu Khurana, a doctor from Delhi, has a very unusual story. She has brought criminal charges against her husband – a surgeon –his mother, his brother and two hospital staff. She says that, when she was pregnant with twin daughters, they gave her food she was dangerously allergic to after she did not agree to an illegal sex test. The hospital staff then gave her the sex test without her agreement. Now, the case is in the Indian courts.

It is not good news for all the extra boys either. By 2020 about 24 million young Chinese males will face a future with no wife. This affects the poor or less well-educated most. ‘It’s terrible,’ says French demographer Christophe Z Guilmoto, ‘in societies where people think you are nothing if you are an unmarried man. There is no model here of unmarried men having a fun life.’

Why boys?

In places with unnatural sex ratios at birth, parents almost always choose boys. The reason for liking sons more is usually tradition.

In China, for example, people say they don’t want girls because of the Confucian custom that family name and property can only pass down the generations through males. In India, they say it’s because of Hindu culture. Traditionally, the son looks after his parents when they get old – and when they die. Only a son can do the funeral that will help the parents into the afterlife. People expect women to leave their family when they get married and become part of their husband’s family.

Guilmoto has spent two decades studying these new altered sex ratios, and he says we should not make generalizations. But he has seen some common basic points. Countries where sex ratios have been most changed are countries where there has been very fast economic growth. In these places technology for seeing the sex of the foetus is very common and not too expensive. They are also places where people have a lot less children than their parents had.

In India, economic growth has introduced consumerism. And this can be very bad for girls and women.

Photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji started the “50 Million Missing” campaign in India. She says that sex selection in India is based on greed. When a girl gets married, her family have to pay a “dowry”. This is often a large portion of family money. ‘Every son is a way of getting more money’ but for every daughter, money leaves the family.

Banerji thinks that all these are related: dowry, prenatal sex selection and female infanticide. ‘When dowry enters a community, everyone becomes greedy for it. It becomes a way of thinking, “Okay, this is a way of getting a lot of money”.’

The female, she adds, ‘becomes a thing, a “resource”– you can buy her, sell her, kill her, keep her. You can do what you want. Like with other resources.’

Like India, the Eastern European countries with altered sex ratios have also welcomed free market capitalism and are having a lot less children. This alone does not lead to sex selection but when people prefer sons, it does. If you have only two children there is a 25 per cent chance that you will never have a son – this is not good in a patriarchal society where they need a son.

People often say that female infanticide and abortion of females are because of China’s one child policy since 1979. But China expert and paediatrician Therese Hesketh, says the policy has had only a small effect on the sex ratio. Information shows that sex selection is highest in areas where people are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.

The law and abortion

Sex selection is now illegal in at least 36 countries. But in countries where son preference has the biggest global impact, people do not enforce the law. In China there is no enforcement of the law. ‘They could investigate the hospitals with very high rates of female foetus abortion but they do not,’ says Hesketh. ‘For some reason they just don’t do this.’

In India, Banerji sees a more complicated situation: ‘Sex selection is a very big, multi-billion dollar industry that everyone benefits from – people who make, and people who follow the law, doctors and medical companies. That’s what keeps it going. The law in India is broken so often it’s as bad as having no law.’

She adds that British and Norwegian Indians come to India for sex selective abortions because the rules are stricter in Britain and Norway. And when an official in the north Indian state of Haryana tried to catch doctors who break the law, he was attacked by colleagues for trying to enforce the law.

Other people say that it is impossible to enforce the ban. It is very common to have an ultrasound test in pregnancy; the sex of the foetus can be seen without anyone saying anything. The abortion can be done in a separate clinic; they can give a different reason for this, not sex selection.

People are worried that if they try to enforce the law, this could stop the legal right for women to have an abortion. Women fought very hard for this.

Sex selection is a difficult area for feminists: a woman’s right to choose has become something used by people who want to stop the birth of females. There are no strong feminist ideas on the subject, so, in the US, the people who are against abortion have taken over the issue.

The US has a normal sex ratio at birth, but Republican anti-abortion lawmakers this year passed the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act. They say they are fighting for gender rights. But critics say the law does more than banning prenatal gender identification - it stops women getting abortions. The new law allows no sex selective abortions at all, not even to save the life or health of the mother, or for any medical reasons (for example to stop fatal inherited conditions linked to one gender). Doctors will need to give information on the race of women who want an abortion and look very carefully at their medical choices.

Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum strongly disagrees with sex selection. But in May this year she joined a lot of health and reproductive rights groups to fight against the law in Arizona.

‘I agree with real efforts and real partnerships to fight gender inequity and racial discrimination,’ she commented. ‘But laws like this are not doing this. If they want to do something about preference for boys, they should not do it by taking away the rights of women.’

Abortion is how people do sex selection – not why people do it.

But control of sex selection is difficult, and it is necessary because things individual people do are having very bad effects on groups.


There is more violence against girls and women - and more protests against it - in India. (Anupam Nath/Press Association Pictures)

Families need to see that sex selecting for boys is a crime against girls. And that forcing women to abort female foetuses is very cruel. People who do this will be punished.

‘The law, and following the law,’ says Banerji, ‘is very important to changing the way people think.’

Change is possible, as South Korea has shown. It is now the only country that has changed from a very altered sex ratio to a normal one.

But we need more than laws to stop people preferring to have a son.

Guilmoto thinks that governments cannot have much effect on reproductive and family choices. But social movements cause revolutions.

We need a big revolution in gender equity in every area – in family life, in law, in the community, in work, in politics, on the street.


In India, there are many protests to stop violence against girls and women.

And more people are talking about it. We have to stop sex selection and to end the war against girls. Women like Mitu Khurana are fighting this in a direct and personal way. She left her husband and gave birth to her daughters. This made her stronger and more confident, she says. She feels responsible for speaking out for people who cannot and to ‘fight for a better world for my daughters’.

The Indian media is full of stories about the results of the latest census. They compare what different states are doing in trying to get the male to female imbalance back to normal. In Haryana, one of the states with the least girls, a record number of people are on the government’s Ladli scheme. This gives parents of girl children money and other benefits until the girl is18.

India has tried out a few plans like this to encourage people. China is encouraging parents too, offering benefits in the Care for Girls programme. We do not know yet if this will be successful, says Guilmoto. China and the worst parts of India are improving their sex ratios a little, he says. Something is working, but we don’t know what yet. In China, for example, they introduced old-age pensions in 2007. This has reduced the economic dependence on sons, so people do not need them so much. But even if this improves very quickly – which is optimistic – it would take until at least 2050 before adult sex ratios returned to normal.

Some social change will probably happen, as reality changes. Too many males might encourage societies to accept many different types of family and sexual arrangements. Young, urban Chinese say that attitudes are now more relaxed towards homosexuality.

But it seems that the habit of sex selection is now starting in other parts of the world. Nepal and Pakistan are beginning to show the signs of sex selection. In the Middle East, private clinics in Beirut and Amman are offering, for rich people, sex selection with no abortion. They use advanced technologies eg. sperm sorting for IVF or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). These are the high-profit, very successful areas of the industry that offer easier sex selection with less chance of people finding out what they are doing. It’s a worrying thought.

If the past two decades have taught us anything, it is that nature, left alone, balances the sexes quite well. Humans clearly do not.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: